glory earth

family heaven

memory

when in summer

water still falling

on secret jungle smell

 

bag men will puzzle

float

tread

go

gone

 

patience twinkle girl smell and sleep

here in loss at moon bloom

as es vale them

 

my lip

 

one old autumn leave of his little glory earth

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The Meaning of Home

“The meaning of a home to me is where you can hear laughter, where you can live happily, where you can feel safe.” – Muhammad, interviewee


I’m Mary, currently studying on Goldsmith’s Queer History MA programme and partaking in a placement at Liberal Judaism, in fair Fitzrovia, as part of a module on Queer Public History. I am into my fourth week and fifth placement day at as I write this – fifth day being because last Saturday was spent assisting with an exhibition of the Rainbow Pilgrims project, a collection of LGBTQI migrants’ oral histories. Fortuitously, the exhibition was already scheduled to show in my home-city of Cambridge, so it was easy for me to wake up at 7.30am to start setting up.

Well.  ‘Easy’ might be pushing it (I am not a morning person), but I was glad that I managed to get out of bed on time, as the 30 pop-up boxes that comprised the exhibit required quite a bit of manoeuvring, even with four of us working on them.

The Rainbow Pilgrim’s project was started in 2016, after two years’ worth of funding were obtained from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Over the next two years, a team of volunteers were trained to collect the oral histories of LGBTQI migrants to the UK, in the first project of its kind.

The project was also notable in its inclusion of often forgotten members of the queer diaspora, such as intersex people and the Gypsy Roma Traveller (GRT) community. This effort to promote inclusivity amongst a transnational focus is an aspect of the exhibit that I really like. It was also the foundation of several interesting dialogues that arose with members of the public on Saturday.

Choosing to include ‘Q’ (Queer) and ‘I’ (Intersex) in the titular acronym of the project was a deliberate decision. Many migrants’ stories pivot around the unstable point of identity experienced when growing up in worlds that don’t ascribe language or space to queer identities. A popular narrative is that once migrants have made their ‘journey to the West,’ their identities are graciously accepted into our free, tolerant society and Everything Is Okay. One vital thing that the oral histories of the project emphasise is that this is often not the case.

Although we have LGBT+ rights inculcated in law, the complicated intersections between faith, race, gender and sexual orientation present their own set of challenges for anyone who doesn’t fit within a prescribed set of societal lines. Therefore, the deliberate and thought-out inclusion of terms intended to include as many of the community as possible is important to a project that aims to promote intersectionality.

Over the course of the exhibit I was asked more than once what ‘all the letters’ stood for. Several people expressed their disapproval for labels. One man suggested we just put the entire alphabet up there, lest we offend someone by omission. This might paint the people in question in a bad light; none of the comments were aggressive or overly confrontational, but they did bring home to me the difficulty in navigating the nuances of identity in a world that resists change, often on the basis of the very complexity that makes specification important.

Even within historically erased groups, visibility is relative: those with power, privilege and social standing are inevitably the people who most often write history. One of the people included in the project was Henry Chapman, a queer member of the GRT community who did incredible work for the visibility and advocation of his community. His interview featured in ‘Another Story,’ a film about the making of the exhibition that was screened during the exhibit. It was a strange experience to spend six hours in a room with his voice playing on loop, all the while knowing that three weeks ago he sadly passed away.

When I first started at placement I was mainly charged with promoting Liberal Judaism’s three LGBT+ heritage projects – Rainbow Pilgrims, Twilight People and Rainbow Jews – on social media. Although I enjoyed formulating posts and communicating with the public, there was a part of me thinking, ‘Does this relate to history?’ Coming from an archiving background inclines me to associate history with dusty documents and old books. It can be easy to forget all about the people who wrote and read them.

I think it was this weekend that it clicked for me that telling people’s stories is sharing their histories, and by giving people a voice and a space – even if the voice is staticy and the space is small – you assert their existence. This is why the ‘+’ and the ‘Q’ and the ‘I’ and the GRT community are important. If history is defined by the past, memorialisation takes place in the present, and the actions inspired by the process of memory provide traction for future changes. All of the projects that I’m promoting as part of my placement consist of individual histories woven together to form narratives as unique as they are universal.

rainbow pilgrims exhbt

From left to right: Molly (Encompass Cambridge, myself and Shaan (Liberal Judaism)

 

 

life size

Growth is analgesic. This is all I can conclude

From the complacency of adults behind the scenes

Who view dramas with detachment that eludes

To higher knowledge, understanding – a wisdom that

Exceeds the humble guesses, clumsy grasps of less

Enlightened youth. Behind the curtains,

Safely draped, how easy to forget; the threat of stage fright,

Dry mouth, stomach fluttering with dread

As we stand in the spotlights, wet with sweat;

Observe our audience, in the stands, watching,

Waiting, perfect view. Thinking, how is it that you

Can see me fully, squinting in the glare of mounting

Expectations – yet as if I am not there. As if the

Little lives on stage are lilipuddlian, surreal,

A kitsch cosy parade of little voices, tiny worries.

A wonderful façade, shrivelling to nothing in daylight

Like fingernails held to flame. I suppose it is easy

So easy for you – the pain of birth, do you remember

That too? And the worries? The bruises? The scrapes

And the shakes? Every tear, every fear, every dark

Hopeless day? I thought not – was I right? Time numbs us

I think. The fears that once paralysed us start to shrink

Helps us to feel that we are invincible – we have

Perspective – we know the score. It might pay to remember

That you could always know more. Or perhaps

To think that, though children are small

From your promise land – though you sit

In comfort and watch from the stands

Just remember: to each other, they are life size.

facing it

1.

You can recognise them, but only if you know what to look for. That bird-beak tautness of the face and the squinched lines of the jaw: these are the calling cards of the walking wounded.

2.

I have said goodbye to you in a thousand different incarnations and not one of them has stuck.

3.

The weird thing about death is, it consigns everything to definite. I don’t just mean in the obvious way, as in yeah, the person’s definitely dead and yeah, they’re not coming back. But what no-one tells you before it happens, is that their death, it’s going to define you forever, in relation to whatever you were to them. Or whatever you weren’t. You never see it any vacuities in obituaries, do you? No, ‘Sort ofs’ or ‘almosts’ or ‘on again, off agains.’ Just the concrete things. Husband, sister, mother, friend. That sort. Or nothing at all. There’s no room for anything that isn’t static, when the rest of the world’s turned upside down.

4.

How do you mourn when there isn’t space for you to do so?

5.

We were drawing at your coffee table, thick paper and lead-smudged noses. You rubbed out my face and inserted another. Your pencil pressed the page harder than mine did, so that even when I rubbed so hard the paper tore, I couldn’t quite erase your marks.

6.

You were the colour of melted wax, strung up to bags of sugar-water from your nose and wrist. I imagined that they were wicks and the steady stream of nutrition running through them was fire, lighting your veins with the candle-flame flicker that you had lost. I said, ‘How are you?’ and you said, ‘Can you look at the IV for me, at the back of the bag? I want to know what they’re pumping me full of.’ I pretended not to hear and you huffed a breath, pissed, but still held out an arm to me. I sat on the bed and you took my hand and it was all bone and bloodless capillaries, your fingernails clubbed and mauve, your knuckles mottled like chicken skin.

I said, ‘When do you think you’ll be out?’

‘Fuck knows,’ you said. The word was too big in your mouth and you held it carefully, presenting it bloody and broken like a cat with a kill, and I pulled my breath in so that my nostrils flared. I turned my voice to syrup, to toffee, to meringue, and said, ‘Oh, that’s a shame, we all miss you so much,’ and stayed as smooth as a chocolate river for the rest of the time I talked.

7.

I lost you when I was nine. I lost you when I was eleven. I lost you when I was fourteen, seventeen, eighteen and twenty. Over and over, the emptiness has re-entered me and there are times when I feel that all I am defined by is absence.

8.

The Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt, and I became good at swimming it. I carried Splenda in the pockets of my heart and whenever affairs became too jagged I dunked a couple into my dialogue. That’s what I became brilliant at, rowing myself along that river on a constant chatter of empty sweetness. Only I knew how empty I was, that besides all that sugar I was running on nothing but the white-hot fizz that sets up shop in your limbs when your heart is dying a long and terrible death. How could I tell anyone? I needed to protect them, and if my innocence was a comfort to them, that was what I would be.

The more you shrank, the more space you took up. The more space you took up, the more I shrank to accommodate you. A feeding cycle, of sorts.

9.

I’m lonelier than I remember how to be and God, I have never cried over anyone the way I cried over you.

10.

I received a card from you when you were in hospital, a red and gold peacock crested on the front, flowers and leaves ornate around the edges. There was something of a Faberge design about it, and I knew what you were doing, knew it in the pit of my gut even before I released the squashed-ant scrawls of your biro. I read it six times over and then I fetched the kitchen scissors and severed your love and promise and please into kaleidoscopic fragments and on each of the broken pieces of the whole I wrote my words over yours.

11.

How do you carve a crevice for yourself out of the ruins of what used to be?

12.

If you think that you will beat me down like dough to be kneaded or earth to be tamped, then I have a whole world of contradictions for you locked into this head of mine. I am more than what was, more than what I regret, more than what was made of me and more than what I failed to make of the glittering vestibules thrown at my feet. I am fire and water, earth and air, scars and stories and I swear with all of the marrow in my bones that I will keep on living and oh, I will set this nebula on fire. The world began with the destruction of a star, so let mine begin with it, with the implosion of light and loss that your absence in the world has gifted me with, darling. Ungive: in a faded language, this means to thaw. I will ungive myself, day by day and night by night, until these memories lay claim to me no more and I can mourn for you as a whole and walk this path not as a ghost or a wraith or a banshee but as a being whose footprints will mark this earth like stamps. Don’t cry for the loss of stars, because the universe is made up of them and without loss there would not be growth. Without change there would not be movement and without movement there would be no summer, no winter, no day or night, no sunlight, no starshine, and it is true that none of these things exist in your absence, but that will change and I know that you would wish that. Movement. That’s all we can do really, isn’t it? Just keep on moving until we stop.

13.

I live off these words, they are my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I breathe them in and they fill the space inside me like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, slotted in neatly to stopper the weeping of my wounds. Words and wounds: what difference, really, is there?

14.

You hurt me. You hurt me. You will never stop hurting me. Past, present and future, it is what it is, and you are what you are, but what you are not and never will be is a regret. You are my greatest fear and my deepest sorrow and you are the wheels that keep me moving onwards, down this path, wherever it might lead. I am scared of you and I love you and I hate you and I laugh at you and I am beginning to make my peace with all of these things existing as one, together and apart. Together and apart, that is you and me. Together and apart, imperfect and scarred, is how we have to be.

15.

When there isn’t a word to describe how you feel, do those feelings cease to exist? When there isn’t a space in your culture’s vocabulary laid aside to you, do you yourself cease to exist? Do you become invisible? Or do you just become deeply, deeply desolate?

16.

You came into my room and lay on my legs. You pushed your face into the hollow of my back and I felt you say, ‘I’m not enough, am I?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘You’re too much.

17.

The other day I saw a girl who had your face.

18.

As time goes by I see more and more of them, the people with your face. Less is more, and the lesser they are the more I see you in them. I wonder sometimes – did I ever see you at all? Or every time I laid eyes on you, on your mug holder ribs and ski-slope hips, was I in fact seeing, and loving, a different creature altogether?

– about that time someone I loved starved herself to bones and carved herself into mine.

bumblebee

A bumblebee flew into my hair

And you were surprised that I was not scared

Because you have seen me when wasps

Buzz and bluster around

Know how I tremble into a statue:

Don’t hurt me don’t hurt me don’t hurt me –

You said, Why aren’t you afraid?

 

Because, I thought, the same stripes

Don’t make two beasts siblings

And wasps will sting for no better reason

Than to feel you shudder as they pierce

You, spurt their acid into soft flesh;

I feel they triumph in seeing me cry.

But bees can’t break my skin without losing

A part of themselves, cannot take from me

Without the tenderest part of them dropping

Right out, leaving them unwhole.

 

I do not wish to hate

A creature

That is just trying to

Survive.

 

growth

I dream of my mother. She is kneeling in front of me with her arms full of cotton wool, antiseptic wipes and swathes of white bandages. She is wrapping them around my feet, first bunching up the cotton wool, then wrapping the bandages tightly around them, tenderly. She is telling me that growing pains are normal for girls my age, that cramps in the feet are common, that this will help. She is wrapping my feet around and round, and all the while I am telling her that the pain isn’t there at all.

glacier

“This pain

It is a glacier moving through you

And carving out deep valleys

And creating spectacular landscapes.” – John Grant, Glacier*


It’s been a strange week.

I’m working through some things at the moment, but am finally at a point where instead of it stalling my writing, I’m able to channel it in. As I alluded to in my last ‘personal’ blog, the project I’m currently working on is based more strongly on my own experiences than anything I’ve written since I was sixteen. I’m finding that scary, but also cathartic and I’m rather enjoying the novelty of it.

What I’m not enjoying so much is the memories it’s bringing back, the majority of which I thought I’d processed and got over. I think  this might be why I’ve historically avoided writing stories with teen protaganists, and, in my actual teenage years, veered away from YA fiction as though it bore the plague. There are some things that really only do with being experienced once.

Minds are weird things. Sometimes they wait until you’re in a healthy place, with a clearer perspective than in the past, and then – BAM! Time to feel that pain all over again, just when you thought it couldn’t touch you any more.

Writing is helping, though. So is talking about it. I’m lucky that my friends are patient, and present, and that people are kind. I’m also lucky that my protagonists are complying with my whims. Long may it last (I suspect it won’t last for that long; the characters I create rarely do what I intend them to).

I suspect that a key trigger behind my current foray down memory lane is, in fact, my characters. Namely my main character. I didn’t intend, when writing her, for her to bear similarities to myself at that age, but she does. I didn’t intend, either, for her to be a particularly likeable person, at least not initially, and she isn’t. She’s all snark and sullenness and awkward anger, inexpertly plastered down over her wounds. She’s hurting hard, and she’s her own worst enemy, and she’s got a hell of a road ahead of her.

I guess the difference, this time, is that I know she’ll be okay.

Running through my head over the past week or so has been a note that I wrote to myself yonks ago – nearly ten years, in fact – in the margin of a workbook: ‘One day this pain will be useful to you’.

I think that day has come.


*This quote, and the title of this post, is from a song called Glacier by John Grant, which I discovered very recently and have been listening to fairly obsessively. It’s number one on my playlist for this writing project, and it may have made me cry at my desk just a wee bit today when I listened to it while working. Anyway, here it is.